El Paso & Dayton Shootings

My forthcoming book, Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen, is constructed as a series of letters written to my friend Marky who died of cancer in 2014. Shortly after the book comes out in October, I will launch a podcast. In each episode of the podcast, I will read a new letter to Marky (not one from the book) to an audience and we’ll discuss it together.

I wanted to say something about the mass shootings last weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, but I couldn’t find the right way to write or speak about it. Then I decided to put to in a new letter to Marky.

Here’s that letter.

Dear Marky,

How’s it going?

You might have noticed about thirty new people showing up wherever you are. Or maybe you didn’t. I don’t know how things work down there, or up there, or wherever you ended up. 

Over the weekend there were two mass shootings here in the USA. One was in Dayton, Ohio, down by where our friend John lives. The other was in El Paso, Texas. I’ve spoken in El Paso a couple of times. It’s a really interesting city right on the Mexican border. In my bathroom I have a neat 3-D picture of a tyrannosaurus that I bought at a market in El Paso.

If you’re able to remember things in whatever place you’re in these days, I’m sure you’ll remember when several members of our mutual friend Lesa’s family were killed by a madman with a gun. He killed her 11 year old nephew, her grandparents, her teenage cousin, her cousin’s friend, and three or four other people. That was in 2011, when you were still alive. 

Lesa used to live in the Clubhouse, that crummy punk rock place we shared in Akron. When she moved out of the room at the front of the house, I moved into that room. Lesa was a big part of all of our lives back in the Clubhouse days. Luckily for her, she wasn’t there when the gunman did his business.

I guess the asshole with the gun was Lesa’s sister’s boyfriend. Everybody knew he was crazy, apparently. He was killed by the cops as he tried to flee the scene. Good for the cops. If you see him wherever you are, Marky, kick his cowardly ass for me. Drop a boulder on his head.

He got his gun perfectly legally, by the way. Crazy as he was. God bless America.

I’ve been mad as hell about guns in America ever since John Lennon was shot and killed by another madman with a legally acquired gun. After Lesa’s family was murdered I decided there was no reason to be nice about it anymore. There’s no arguing the point. It’s too damned easy to get a gun in this country. 

I don’t know what the solution is. These kinds of crazed mass shootings seem to be a uniquely American problem. Maybe they also happen in Somalia or Afghanistan too. I don’t know. But they sure don’t happen in other first world countries, not even the ones where people also have tons of guns, like Switzerland.

If there’s any solution to the problem it’s never going to happen as long as people keep voting and otherwise acting along tribal lines. Nothing changed after those kids were shot at Sandy Hook, or after that nutjob opened fire on a crowd from a hotel room in Las Vegas, so I can’t imagine anything’s going to change now. 

All I can really do anymore is vent my frustrations to friends. Posting on social media doesn’t help. I just get strangers arguing with me. That certainly doesn’t make things any better. 

I’ve written articles for my blog and made videos on my YouTube channel after other mass shootings. Those didn’t seem to do much good either.

There’s plenty to be sad about in this world. Like cancer, or divorces, or when your dog dies, or how they can’t seem to make any decent movies anymore. I don’t understand what motivates some people to try to bring even more sadness into the place. There’s already enough.

I guess angry people think they have a right to hit back at a world that’s hurt them. I’ve certainly felt that way myself plenty of times.

But really, anyone you want to hurt is already hurting as much as you are. Once I noticed that, my desire to deliberately cause pain to anyone else pretty much vanished.

It wasn’t easy to get there though. I mean, I knew intellectually that other people hurt just like I did. But knowing it as a fact you carry around in your head is one thing. Actually coming into direct contact with that fact is quite another.

It’s hard to really see yourself in everyone and everyone in yourself.

Actually, it’s not that hard. In fact, it’s probably the easiest thing in the world to do.

But somehow we’ve managed to block ourselves off from that understanding. We erect and maintain barriers to seeing ourselves in others and seeing others in ourselves. We put tremendous amounts of energy and effort into blocking off our own natural empathy. That’s one of the saddest aspects of human existence. We waste so much effort and energy maintaining the fiction that we are independent units, disconnected from everyone and everything around us.

I suppose the disconnect goes too far with some people. Maybe they think they’re the only ones who feel pain. Maybe they think it’s their right to inflict pain upon those they think don’t suffer enough.

Or maybe they don’t think it through at all. Maybe hate blinds them and makes them numb.

In the past few days I’ve seen a lot of people denouncing hate.

I guess they mean well when they say that stuff. I guess they feel like that’s the solution. 

My Zen teacher used to say this weird thing sometimes, though. He’d say that, in the balanced state love and hate are equal. The balanced state was his term for what happened in our bodies and minds when we do zazen.

I used to get really puzzled by the idea that love and hate need to be balanced. I always thought we were supposed to erase hate and feel only love.

But I think that when he talked about balancing love and hate he was getting very deep. Way too deep for most people. He was using the word “hate” to indicate our sense of being isolated individuals. He used the word “love” to indicate universal oneness. The truth is that these two contradictory aspects of our existence are both real. 

When we slip too far into hate, we forget our interconnectedness and we can lash out at others without noticing they are ourselves. But if we slip too far into love, we forget that we each have our own unique experience and perspective. We can become weak and unable to use our individuality as a way to help the collective whole. Like in that Star Trek episode The Enemy Within from season one of the Original Series where Captain Kirk was split into his good and evil sides. The good side was harmless but completely ineffective as a captain. The evil side was a total maniac. Sometimes Star Trek got really deep.

There’s nothing I can say that will fix this broken world. But I think it’s possible if I carry on the work of trying to get people to look fearlessly at themselves, somewhere far down the line, when there’s no more me left in the world, maybe one of these days there will be a different sort of person for whom none of this will be a mystery.

It’s what I hope for anyhow.

Say hi from me to the new folks from Ohio.





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